But to many inside the administration, what Mr. Putin omitted was more important than what he said. There was no threat that the United States and NATO must yield to his demands that troops leave the former Soviet bloc nations that are now part of NATO, and that all nuclear weapons be removed from Europe, or he will be forced into what he has previously and mysteriously called “military/technical means.” It may have been a temporary omission.
And Mr. Putin did say that the American and NATO responses, the text of which leaked to a Spanish newspaper, addressed none of his core concerns. But he suggested there was still some time for diplomacy, striking a very different tone from his demand a few weeks ago that he needed “written guarantees,’’ and needed them immediately.
Some who have jousted with Mr. Putin for years saw a man looking for a way out.
William B. Taylor Jr., a longtime diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said on Wednesday that he thought Mr. Biden’s more aggressive posture — a shift he calls “from passive deterrence to active deterrence” — was working.
“I think Putin has already blinked in some sense,’’ Mr. Taylor, who burst into public view when he testified at the impeachment hearings of President Donald J. Trump, said in an interview. “He was in a stare-down. And now he is looking for a way out. He’s overplayed his hand, and he may, for a while, settle for entering negotiations on a series of topics.”
Others are not so sure.
Some Russia experts inside and outside the government say that while Mr. Putin is seeking respect for Russia as a great power and real attention to his security needs — complaints that the West has largely ignored — lengthy negotiations over new arms control treaties or reciprocal limits on troop movements and exercises are unlikely to satisfy him. He will want concrete concessions now, in this view, before he can pull back from the border.
Several administration officials say they think Mr. Putin’s interest in diplomacy is purely tactical, and temporary. They suspect he doesn’t have all his forces amassed yet and may not want to cross President Xi Jinping of China by invading just as the Winter Olympics are beginning in Beijing. Mr. Putin is emerging from a long Covid-related isolation to join the celebration later this week, and he will use the moment to meet with Mr. Xi, with whom he has formed something of an alliance of convenience.
The Olympics end around Feb. 20, and the administration’s Russia hands say that will be the time to assess whether they have had any impact. Perhaps, they say, he will test Mr. Biden by trying to take more territory in the Russian-speaking east and south. Perhaps he will try to undermine the Zelensky government by turning off the power, or communications.
But several echoed Mr. Biden’s statement two weeks ago at a news conference, when he said, “My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.”